The linguistic je ne sais quoi

There are so many things the French do better…isn’t it…? Perhaps not as many as they seemingly like to think… or as we seem to think that they like to think (well… one of the two).  But sometimes yes, they do do things better.

I won’t get into neither haute couture nor haute culture nor haute cuisine. And certainly not love. But I will talk about the way they speak. They incontestably have a beautiful language. To prove that they sometimes use way too many words to say a simple thing, other times they just use the words like nobody else can.

That little linguistic je ne sais quoi

Achoo! Bless you is cute enough, but the French say for the first sneeze – à tes souhaits (to your wishes), for the second sneeze – à tes amis (to your friends) and for the third one – à tes amours (to your darlings). Makes you want to sniff some pepper, doesn’t it!

Window shopping: Boring in English, but the French? Lèche-vitrine – they lick the windows. How very accurate! How very Ally McBealish!

– Minute Papillon! Hang on a (butterfly) minute! This expression might mean “hold your horses”, or “I disagree”. In the first sense, it’s easily linked to the ephemera of a butterfly, but there’s a cuter story behind this cute expression: A hundred years or so ago, there was a café in Paris frequented by journalists. One of the waiters was called Papillon, and when they all wanted him at the same time, he’d shout – minute, j’arrive!  –“one minute, I’m coming!” You can just picture the scene, can’t you? And the journalists did what journalists often do; they came up with a new expression, minute Papillon. They also started to use their new-found expression in their lively discussions to get a word in and have their say, hence the two meanings.

The way they always – always! –  manage to include food:

-avoir un cæur d’artichaut – to have an artichoke heart; be a bit of a softy, fall easily in love

-mon petit chou – my little cabbage – but wait, it’s not, a chou is also a little cream-filled puff pastry, and in this case an endearing term for a loved one. But hey, mon petit bout de chou (it’s your child you’re talking about now), refers to a piece of cabbage, non? Either way, it’s edible. As are sardines, you can also say “ma petite sardine”…if you like…


-mi-figue, mi-raisin – half fig, half grape; ambiguous, doubtful

-c’est la fin des haricots – no more beans; all is lost.

-tomber dans les pommes – faint

Having French speaking children, it’s always fun to listen to how they insult each other: Tête de… followed by whatever they can think of… patate, fromage… (potato head, cheese head…). Even specifying the kind of cheese; Reblochon seems to be popular.

Ah, our darling children, who are born in a cabbage if it’s a boy, and in a rose if it’s a girl according to the French. Go figure.


By Unni Holtedahl, November 2015.


  1. That’s interesting – and put’s french people in a new light to me…


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